Middle East // Analysis

08 december 2015

Russia in a Changing Middle East

Irina Zviagelskaya Doctor of History, Professor of the Oriental Studies Department of the MGIMO University
РИА Новости / Дмитрий Виноградов

Interests and opportunities

The Middle East has always had a special meaning for Russia. The area provides access to the Mediterranean Sea, linking Russia with the countries of the Eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East, North Africa. Any threat of war, a concentration of foreign armies, civil wars in the states located there, conflicts and terrorist attacks can cause concern to Russia, given that the border around the perimeter of the former Soviet Union is not well fortified, and the flow of radical ideas, terrorist fighters and recruiters into the Caucasus and Central Asia can make Russia particularly vulnerable.

Before the Arab Spring Russia managed to build relationships with different players in the Middle East, including Iran, Israel, a number of Arab states, Hamas and Hezbollah. Under today's conditions of deepening interstate and inter-confessional confrontation in the Middle East, the problem of conflicting interests has become very acute for the Russian policy makers. Russia's policy in and towards the Middle East has become more biased. A choice of options was caused mostly by new trends and profound changes in the region itself.

Political processes developing in the Middle East have marked the formation of a new regional landscape. As a result of powerful social, ethnic, tribal, religious, and ideological contradictions many Arab countries in the Middle East and North Africa have suffered most serious crisis. Mass protests, revolutions, revolts, coups seriously violated domestic political balances, challenged local elites, turned into civil wars and questioned the preservation of statehood itself. Many authors who have been analyzing the Arab Spring phenomenon draw attention to the fact that its causes and results were the crisis of the nation-states in the Middle East. Ethnic, sectarian, confessional identities, local loyalties and solidarity groups have turned to be much more viable than it could have been expected within a paradigm of a modernity.

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Domestic developments in the region were either caused or accompanied by much more militant policies of regional actors and global powers. By the degree of the impact on the situation regional powers have been increasingly overplaying external actors. They are successfully trying to strengthen their role in the region and to spread their influence beyond its borders. The list is long enough -- Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, UAE .

Global powers also contributed to making the situation even less manageable. Attempts to reestablish institutions in Iraq were only partially successful. Sectarianism turned to dominate political transformation; Sunni politicians and managers were replaced mostly by Shiites. The law on "debaathization" and the dissolution of the Iraqi armed forces put many Sunni professionals on the street. No wonder that later on a significant number of them joined the ranks of ISIS.

An important element of the Middle East scene is the deepening Sunni-Shiite confrontation. The tensions between the two are not a new phenomenon. However, in recent years a number of factors contributed to the strengthening of interconfessional tensions and to their politicization. For example, the predominance of Shiites in various institutions in Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein gave a signal to Shiite communities and groups in other countries. Hezbollah became much more active in Lebanon. The defeat of Iraqi military machine and the new balance of political forces in Iraq have led to the consolidating of Iran's role in Iraq, in the Gulf and beyond, of its claim to leadership in the Middle East and in the Muslim world. Even more obvious was the Iranian-Saudi rivalry. Especially clear it has been manifested in Yemen.

Along with heightened Shiite-Sunni contradictions the situation was also marked by a deep split in the Sunni camp. The reason of it was a cross-border activities of an extremist organization - the Islamic State. ISIS has positioned itself as a champion of a global project - the caliphate. Its activists denounce and condemn the Arab national movements and states. The Islamic State has huge resources and ideological appeal, control vast territories, and unites supporters from around the world. This is a new phenomenon, since it has not only been fighting against all that is contrary to its concept of the world order, but has put forward its own project of state-building.

With the Middle East coming to the forefront of international relations Russian objectives in the region have acquired new dimensions.

First, Moscow has tried to put an end to the interference of the US and its NATO allies into domestic affairs of the Middle East states motivated by a regime change goal. The toppling of dictators (Iraq, Lybia) has resulted in chaos, new waves of migration and the emergence of new jihadist groups. According to Russian analysts, such interference is becoming more universal and its most recent manifestation was evidenced in Ukraine. Thus, Moscow has been trying to create new rules for the world order. These rules imply that neither the United States nor anyone else could declare one or another regime as illegitimate and demand its dismissal. Russian leadership believes that the UN should develop clear criteria to distinguish between genuine national uprising and rebellion inspired by outside forces. The practice of "color revolutions" and the use of intervention to support the opposition should be renounced.

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Second, Russia was ready to proceed with a new activist policy in the region which was to prove its indispensability as a major international player. Hence, it's policy vis-a-vis Iranian nuclear program and its intervention in Syria.

Third objective can be reached as a result of the success of the second. Russian leadership has been trying to overcome sanctions and political isolation imposed on the country after the Ukraine crisis. Western sanctions were a factor leading Mr. Putin to seek new diplomatic openings and exploit growing Arab frustrations with the US as he did during a visit to Egypt, which also included a Saudi-financed arms deal. Mr. Putin and Prince Salman on the sidelines of a St. Petersburg economic forum reportedly signed six deals, including contracts on space cooperation, infrastructure development, and a a nuclear cooperation agreement that could see Russia helping to build up to 16 atomic power stations in the kingdom.

Russian involvement into Syria has aroused tensions with the Saudis, while the explosion of the Russian Airbus over Sinai stopped the flow of Russian tourists to Egypt thus almost bringing down the Egyptian tourist industry.

The terrorist attacks in France and arrests of terrorists in Belgium and Germany have marked a new turn of the situation. Russian military operation against ISIS and other terrorist groups in Syria has acquired additional logic and legitimacy. What's more, France was called Russian ally in the course of military operation in Syria.

Why Syria?

The Russia's military operation in Syria and the creation of a new coalition (Syria, Iran, Hezbollah, Kurds) to fight the enemy on the ground has drawn greatest attention to the policy of Russia in the Middle East. From a military and a political point of view, Russia's actions are unprecedented. The combination of air and naval forces; an element of surprise both at strategic level and at the level of decision-making; new types of arms and equipment, high flight training of pilots. Russian military intervention in the conflict in the Arab world has no historical precedent - unlike other global powers neither the Russian Empire nor the Soviet Union ever fought with the Arabs.

To answer the question what factors prompted the Russian Federation to start a military operation, it makes sense to look at the history of Soviet-Syrian and Russian-Syrian relations. A transformation of Syrian Baathists into the main Soviet ally in the Arab world was not accidental. Syria as a secular regime and one of socially and economically effective had become a kind of showcase for the Soviet aid and support. Syria had acquired for Moscow even greater significance than Egypt, which even at the height of friendship and cooperation sought to diversify its ties and tried to distance itself from a tight embrace of the USSR.

While for the Syrian regime the development of the relationship with the USSR meant its following in the footsteps of Soviet policy, for Moscow it meant lending a more responsive ear to Syrian concerns, phobias, fears, which sometimes did not coincide with broad Soviet interests in the Middle East. For example, the Syrians, who had been in a permanent hot conflict with Israel, affected the Soviet policy on the eve of the 1967 war.

Hafez al-Assad, after coming to power in 1971, made a bid for a more realistic course and a greater autonomy in Syria's domestic and foreign policy. Huge military aid and training of Syrian military enabled Syria to achieve a very limited, but psychologically important gain in the October 1973 war. Syria became the number one Soviet ally after the US mediation had brought Anwar Sadat to sign the Camp David Accords in 1978.

In the early 1990s a relative decrease in importance of the region in Russia's priorities was dictated primarily by a fundamental reformation of the system of international relations after the collapse of the USSR. The rejection of confrontation with the West as the main component of the bipolar world; limited resources of Russia; the gradual formation of a polycentric world with the leading role of the USA still maintained; elimination of the ideological factor in the foreign policy decision-making - all this could not but affect the Russian approach to the Middle East.

Russia under President Boris Eltsin kept an interest in cooperation with the former Arab allies, though in limited amounts and without binding obligations. It meant that Syria had remained on the list and there were good reasons for it. First, Damascus was still a Soviet debtor; issues related to the resolution of this problem were constantly discussed at the bilateral meetings. Second, the Syrian army, once armed with Soviet weapons, was still in need of spare parts and supplies that could be obtained only from the Russian Federation. In turn, Russia was striving to stay on the arms market in the Middle East. Third, Syria has continued to play a leading role in the region, including its impact on the prospects of the Arab-Israeli conflict settlement. Accordingly, the Russian Federation had to take into account the position of Damascus towards the Palestinian problem and even try to influence it, since Moscow wished to retain its traditional involvement in the Middle East peace process.

The situation has changed after the death of Hafez al-Assad and Bashar's access to power. The last has never been as close to Moscow as his father; were it not for the civil war and foreign interference in Syria, Russian policy towards this country would have not become as activist. Moscow's intention to prevent the overthrow of the Assad regime was caused by the following considerations. First, the Russian Federation opposed the creation of preconditions for the repetition either of the Libyan scenario ( Russia felt to be deceived in the case) or that of a color revolution.

Second, the events in Syria in case of the regime collapse could have had a powerful destructive consequences for the entire region. An option would be a capture of Damascus by ISIS with an idea of caliphate almost coming true. Meanwhile the situation on the ground has been getting more and more dramatic. Suffice it to say that ISIS and other Islamic radical groups got in control up to 80 per cent of Syrian territory. In practical terms, the Russian Federation would prefer the preservation of the secular regime in Syria, which may possibly be encouraged to carry out necessary reforms and to prevent a spillover of radical Islamist project to other countries in the Middle East and beyond. A resurrection of Syrian statehood would secure Moscow's foothold in the area, including the infrastructure on the coast such as a modernized naval base in Tartus (providing refueling, repair, etc.) required for the Russian navy in the Mediterranean, and an airbase in Latakia . This logic can explain Russia's actions vis-a-vis Syria, which is often interpreted solely as support for Assad. Unfortunately certain Russian propagandists have contributed a lot to this misperception.

Third, the fight against ISIS and other terrorist groups is caused for Russia by domestic concerns. Thousands of Russian citizens from the North Caucasus, from Tatarstan and Bashkortostan have already fled to fight on the side of ISIS. Their departure does not mean that they will not come back some day. No less dangerous from the security point of view, is the activities of ISIS in Central Asia, given the absence of a visa regime and porous borders.

Pros and cons of military operation

Russian activism in Syria may have for it both positive and negative consequences. Political gains may proceed from demonstration of determination, increased international role and responsibility of the Russian Federation, its ability to cooperate under crisis with a variety of powers - the US, EU, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Israel, Hezbollah, Saudi Arabia, the Syrian leadership, part of the Syrian opposition (although with different degree of success). A significant contribution of the Russian Federation to the collective efforts to achieve a settlement could engender international trust, so much needed at the moment.

Moscow has leverage on Assad, who is known for his stubbornness, lack of vision, and rejection of even minor compromises. For Assad his departure at the end of the transitional period or even before would not be acceptable. For him an obscure future of his political heritage, built up by his father, seem to be a sort of a personal trauma. Syria was ruled by his family for over the years, and a thought that he could not keep this system intact is, probably, unbearable to Bashar. Still coordinated international efforts could make him accept the outcome of the eventual negotiations and national elections as well as guarantees which could be extended to him. This said, the reasons for a cautious optimism should not be overestimated.

Military involvement in Syria is fraught with serious risks for Russia. It has already strongly affected Russian relations with Turkey. From the very beginning Turkey took anti-Assad stand. It extended support to the radical opposition like Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, allowed Islamic fighters and volunteers to snake through its border into Syria, it preferred to bomb the Kurds, rather than ISIS. Turkish leaders believe that Russian military operation in Syria has been contrary to the Turkish interests. The increasing tensions resulted in the shooting down of the Russian SU-24 by the Turkish F- 16. This threatens to endanger bilateral relations and to put a concept of wide international coalition under question. The fact that Turkey is a NATO member makes the situation even worse. It's obvious that cool heads are needed, but it's not clear if President Erdogan would be interested in defusing the crisis.

The worsening of recently improved relations with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states is also possible. For them the presence of Iran and Hesbollah who have been fighting along with the Syrian army in the Russia's coined up coalition is totally unacceptable.

Certain tensions with Iran are not excluded either. Now Iran and Russia are on the same side against a common enemy. However a significant Iranian presence in Syria may put Russia protecting Syrian state, in a difficult position.

There could be some friction with Israel as well. The Israelis have been trying to keep open sky over Syria for the Israeli air force to operate freely in case of emergency. A containment of Hezbollah is much more important for Israel than the fight against ISIS. Israeli bombing of Hezbollah positions in Syria have already taken place. Israel is also concerned that the Iranian army will become stronger due to a military experience in Syria.

Finally, ISIS have been continuously threatening Russia with terrorist war on its soil. The November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris proved once again that these threats should be taken very seriously.

Any war tends to acquire a logic of its own. So, a military operation, which is required to achieve a quick victory, implies a significant increase in strength. Sluggish war does not bring positive results, and becomes counterproductive. Some experts fear that Russia may eventually be forced to start ground operation with all related consequences. If the offensive of the Syrian army and its allies run out of steam, the airstrikes alone would not be able to defeat the extremists. Whether Russia will be forced then to deliver its own boots on the ground is a question that has no response right now.

One cannot ignore the fact that Shiite allies of the Russian Federation in Syria do not add to its popularity in the Sunni states, including a part of the Islamic community in Russia itself.

Prospects for liberation of the Syrian territories remain vague. Despite the Vienna agreement among the 20 that the territorial integrity for Syria shall kept intact, realistically speaking the international community might end up with a "small" Syria, having taken for granted an uncertain future of its other parts. Even if the Syrian troops and their allies will be able to make significant progress, it is unclear who and how will ensure good governance in the territories, and who will provide enormous financial assistance for their recovery. In other words, a military victory could be just the beginning of an unknown path with the notion of victory becoming increasingly blurred and non-obvious.

The focus of the November 2015 meeting on Syria in Vienna was changed by Paris terrorist attacks. It was stressed that ISIS is an overt threat; it cannot be defeated without ending the crisis in Syria which requires a political process. High-level talks have produced an agreement to seek meetings between the opposition and the government of President Bashar al-Assad by year's end. The elections in Syria are supposed to take place within next 18 months.

The move from international discussions to action will not be easy, given the differences of goals and approaches of the parties involved. For Russia, a political process may open up a chance of improving relations and building trust with global and regional actors. It's important not to allow present and probably upcoming crises to undermine this trend.

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Irina Zviagelskaya, “Russia in a Changing Middle East,” Russian International Affairs Council, 08 December 2015, http://russiancouncil.ru/en/inner/?id_4=6978

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